Defining Olympic Events in History

From ancient Greece to the Cold War, a look at controversy and coming together at the Olympic Games

By Kaelen Pelaia, Staff Writer

With the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic events coming to a close in South Korea this February, the world has come together in a truly international sporting event. In fact, this year’s games saw a historic invitation by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to South Korean president Moon Jae-in to visit North Korea as the two nations competed as a unified team for the very first time. The Games have been a site of definitive moments and political controversy since they began in ancient times, greatly impacting the course of history.

The Olympics first appeared in the ancient world on the Greek peninsula, traditionally dated to 776 BCE. Originally a festival dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, the Olympic Games evolved to include sporting events such as wrestling, javelin throwing, and running. The time set for the Games to occur was sacred to the ancient Greeks, and all hostilities or rivalries between the myriad of city-states on the peninsula were suspended for the duration of the festival, in order to allow athletes to travel to the city of Olympia safely. The games continued until 394 CE, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals in the Roman Empire, including the Greek Olympic games because of its association with Zeus.

Over the course of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were many attempts to revive or emulate the ancient games. Revolutionary France held a sporting event called L’Olympiade de la République between 1796 and 1798. In Shropshire, England, there was also an event called the ‘Wenlock Olympic Games,’ founded in 1850, which continues to this day.

However, what most recognize as theOlympic Games first came into fruition after the Greek War of Independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1821. A wealthy Greek-Romanian named Evangelos Zappas, in a letter to the Greek King Otto in 1856, offered to fund a revival of the ancient event in Olympia. Shortly afterward, an international body was created to assist in organizing the event by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and thus the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was born.

The very first modern Olympic Games was held in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece in 1896. 21 nations and 241 athletes (all male) competed in the event. It was a resounding success, and the world athletic stage was changed forever. Subsequent games would be held in the great cities of the world at the time, including Paris, London, and St. Louis. The 1900 Paris Games were the first to allow the participation of female athletes.

Yet, the Olympic Games would not take on the scope and breadth of the modern Games until the 1906 Intercalated Games (so-called because it was held a year early), which saw a massive international participation from both athletes and spectator, marking the beginning of the rise in popularity of the Olympics.

The very first Winter Olympics were created to fulfil the demand for winter sports that faced obvious logistical issues of being held during the summer. The very first Winter Games were held in 1924 in Paris, and featured figure skating, ice hockey, and speed skating. Though it was initially intended by the IOC for the same country to host the both the Summer and Winter Games in a given year, this idea was quickly scrapped, and a system was developed where the Winter Games would be held the same year as the summer games, but in another host nation. The modern method of alternating every two years would not come into effect until the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway.

1948 witnessed a huge influx of wounded soldiers returning home from the Second World War, and in an effort to encourage rehabilitation, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sporting event between multiple hospitals which eventually evolved into the ‘Parallel Olympics,’ or Paralympics, as they are known today. The first international Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, alongside the Olympic events that year.

Over the years, the Olympic games have been subject to a variety of boycotts and political protests over the years. In 1934, the Olympic Council of Ireland boycotted the games due to the IOC requiring a team to be from the Irish Free State rather than from the entirety of Ireland. The 1956 games, Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland refused to participate in protest of the Soviet Union’s harsh repression of the Hungarian Uprising earlier that year. Most famously, however, were the boycotts by a multitude of African nations in 1972 and 1976 in protest of the segregationist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Over the course of the Cold War, NATO nations and Eastern Bloc countries all boycotted each other’s games, including the Moscow Games in 1980 and the Los Angeles Games of 1984.

Even the Olympics of recent have not been immune to controversy; the allegations against the Russian Federation’s use of steroids and other forms of doping prompted the IOC to ban the country from fielding a team this year’s games in Pyeongchang. A team of Russian athletes entered the events as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ in response.

Despite the vulnerability of the Olympic Games to political ideology and posturing, the Games remain a symbol of international assembly and an ideal of peace and unity for the nations and people of the world to strive for in times of turbulence and insecurity.